Project Description

Dear Kind Editor, who accepted my essay: Dear Editor, who wished me luck placing my poems elsewhere, in 17 hours. I am so happy, because where is elsewhere anyways? Someplace very far away? Or most likely too often exactly where I live.

I am writing to thank you for your generous response and to ask, do you know where elsewhere is anyways? The other editor has really thrown me for a loop to loop. Any advice is greatly appreciated. You see I often have a problem with the present tense. My wife will be telling me something about what we need to do that day, to take our oldest daughter to the eye exam or to go to Sam’s Club to buy one of those giant bags of Dog Food, you know the ones so large it is like trying to wheel an actual Saint Bernard, like the body of a pedophile murdered and bagged to the car on an episode of Law & Order we first watched together a decade ago, that she had completely remembered the ending wrong and I said we’ve seen so many episodes so many times perhaps our mind sort of collages them all together, mixing and matching segments, which brings me back to tell you what I was trying to say is sometimes, like anyone, I sometimes drift when she is speaking, my eyes out the window toward the lawn covered with yellow leaves, and I am thinking I have to rake those and asking myself if it is going to rain, and look higher at the gray slate of the lake sky, and then I am back but not fully, I am remembering something of when I was young, or maybe it is when she was younger, before she grew ill and lost all her teeth, or maybe I am remembering a memory she told me of once long ago how she and her boyfriend broke into the closed down paper to steal copper wiring to sell for dope, and there was a wild dog that lived in that factory, an abandoned pit bull they grew to know and would feed, leaving it plain double cheeseburgers from McDonalds which it would gulp down. Back then I often ask if she thought of what would become of her, or what she regrets, or grieves? You see I am not here even as I write this, and then I am back, back to her, and we are making a grocery list together.

There is a kind of list I make at work each night over and over with some of the men and women I take care of. We call it orienting. When they wake up or seem to be about to have an outburst and motherfuck this and that we ask them, do you know who I am? Do you know where you live? Do you know why you are here? (The kinds of same questions the great Philosophers asked as they pondered being alive?) The greatest questions are often the simplest. But the answer we seek often is not, though I’ve come to ask myself more than once as I go through this life. But for B or A I must ask them to make sure they are not elsewhere. For when they travel, they will stay there. B will say, we are at college, or he will say home, or at mom’s house. One time he asked a caregiver to tuck him in and said he was scared. This 45-year-old man had become 12. I tell him he is a time traveler. I remind him he is a man and watch him press the pieces to a puzzle of the planets or a kitten with a bow together, the way his mind so often tries to press and puts together the wrong pieces of his life into a jumble he cannot sort out with his hands. Where is elsewhere, I ask, Dear Editor? When our bodies are here, and our minds can look at the world right in the face and be somewhere else?

One day, B, being pissy and resistant to take his shower, I grew curt and said, listen you need to bathe. Where is your mind? And out of nowhere he turned to me and said, “I got my mind on my money and my money on my mind.”

Dear Editor, what is the mind: how it turns and wheels, like a kite on a long string in a strong breeze, like the dragon tailed kite my autistic daughter and I fly along the lake. I watch her run with it. For once she is so present. Her small feet leaving tracks in the summer sand. I watch her reach that string high into the sky, the one we gaze on, for millennium, since we first stood over the savanna as night fell and one of us, the most present of us, pointed at those far and distant flames, and drew the lines between stars in the dirt with a stick to outline between the vast and empty elsewhere an animal or an archer or anything that was the shape of something familiar we could name.

Dear Editor, who wrote, “We have decided not to select any from this batch. Best of luck finding homes for them.”

Why? Instead let them be gypsy poems. Let them caravan.

Inside a tulip. Inside a hummingbird’s ear? Rising on the Iowa horizon, a faraway silo. Inside a burnt spoon, inside a vein, inside the tight chord. Instead stopped breathing. Inside a coffin. Inside a sermon, a eulogy. Instead a drawer. Where I keep a box of bullets.

A box of smoke.

I wish you could have seen the red and yellow tailed sky stretching above the closed steel factory, as I drove home from working the night shift. The husk of the steel plant was a box of hope.

What light is the moon like a Eucharist in the mouth of the sky.

The rusty cars lined up outside Flynn’s tire shop. The entire city awakened to a lullaby named brother.

A sudden door opens in the side of your chest. Does the light shine out, or in?

My poems are ringing doorbells. My poems are asking for spare change.

When I arrived home my daughter asked me what she should draw. A bird, I said. She said I don’t know how to draw a bird. I said, then you should draw one. We only can do what we do and not what we don’t.

Poems should never have homes. Gypsy poems, poems driving RVs through the coal fields.

My grandfather worked his entire life helping homeless teenagers not die. He would go out in the storms to look for kids to help bring to the shelter. There is a wind that reminds me of him.

When I was 42, I was homeless for over a month. I lived in a motel. I had a room down a long driveway in the back. There lived a man who parked a Lincoln Town Car. He had the room two down from me. He didn’t say much. He was over 60 years old, he’d sit and smoke cigarillos. I never saw him eat.

Home is where the father rests his read. Home is where the mother bakes the bread.

My mother says I should call home more. They are getting old. I haven’t lived with them for decades and the house they live in I never did, but where they live is the place that fits the word.

We are birds. We leave, we return. Or are we water? We never really leave. The faucet leaks.

What language does not have the word home?

The refrain we recall when we are most alone.

To go home, like towards a country. Or a room. Or a door at the end of the hall?

Where he was headed. Where he did not arrive.

Odysseus in the blue light of the police cruiser.

A long string of ghost children crossing these suburban streets

A tavern, a bar, a motel where her childhood slept. A tenement at the edge of town.

It was the kind of house that still had a string of cheap Christmas lights around the porch in June.

The stream where we cast our lines. Where we never caught anything but broken bottles.

What we leave in the rear-view mirror? Where our dead are buried?

Refugee: a story that never can fully be told. Perhaps no more than an orange tree? What one remembers is no longer there, or was it ever?

The fields at dusk long paved over. Only the street names are the same. The place where what has long been boarded up.

What bright grief stands in a door blown open? Little by little it is what we forget.

What is home, I ask my daughter?
My daughter lifts her colored pencils.
She draws four lines in blue.
She draws a yellow triangle. She makes a house.

No one lives here she says.
It is too small for the people
to fit inside it.

She draws her giant stick figures.

The children carry it, she says, like this:

And she carefully folds the drawing
and puts it in her pocket.

Sean Thomas Dougherty

Sean Thomas Dougherty is the author or editor of 17 books, including All My People are Elegies (forthcoming) and Alongside We Travel:  Contemporary Poets on Autism, published by NYQ Books, and The Second O of Sorrow and All I Ask for Is Longing: New and Selected Poems 1994-2014,published by BOA Editions. He works as a caregiver and Med Tech for various disabled populations and lives with the poet Lisa M. Dougherty and their two daughters along Lake Erie.